I AM LEGEND
Watching movies on DVD without having seeing them in the theater has its setbacks. I Am Legend
was a huge hit in theaters and by not seeing it, avoiding spoilers for so long was difficult. As a fan of film criticism, I enjoy reading movie reviews, even for movies I haven’t seen. So, going into watching this, I was already aware of the basic plot and story elements.
For those who haven’t seen the film or don’t know anything about it, I Am Legend is the third film adaptation of a 1954 story of the same name by Richard Matheson. The story is about Robert Neville, the last remaining human in New York following a massive man-made infectious outbreak (the Krippen Virus) that killed billions of people and turned the surviving millions into night wandering zombie-like creatures that eventually killed the few immune. Neville, a former virologist and army Colonel, is immune to the disease and spends everyday trying to find a cure through experimental vaccination tests, and every night hiding in his house which has been fortified like a modern day military base.
An empty and dilapidated New York City is hauntingly beautiful. It brings to mind Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, a story about how nature would take the Earth back if humans did not exist. Director Francis Lawrence and Director of Photography Andrew Lesnie give us breathtaking views of a historic city falling apart and it seems nearly impossible that Weisman’s book wasn’t an influence.
The biggest strength of IML is it’s character development. Echoing, isolationist characteristics and story arcs of Cast Away, Will Smith gives a wonderful performance as Robert Neville. We’re given even greater depth into Neville’s character through a series of flashbacks throughout the film that detail Neville’s current state of mind and loneliness.
It’s hard to imagine how we would act in a similar situation, but as a dog owner I know that I would rely as much on my dog as Neville does on his. Sam, a German Shepherd, is as powerful of a character as Neville and through masterful storytelling and direction, the audience feels as attached to a dog as we do to the human lead.
During the hunting scene we are offered our first glimpse of the infected, the terror that grips the audience not only from the fear on Neville’s face, but the fear you can feel in his heart of losing his only friend. As a dog owner, the fear of losing your pet that you love is a scary thought. Lawrence does a wonderful job of building suspense around Sam and Neville’s equal need of each other and the terror that surrounds the chance of losing one another.
While Neville suspects that the infected have finally stopped showing any signs of human characteristics, he meets one infected that confuses him, showing signs of human cognition and planning. After a trap is sprung and Neville is injured, the dramatic tension quickly rises as swiftly as the sun sets. As Neville and Sam try to flee to their car, a few infected dogs wait at the fading edge of a sunbeam for their chance to strike.
(SPOILER- Skip until the end of the alert)
This scene begins the end of Neville’s remaining desire to live. While fighting the infected dogs for his life, Neville continues to see Sam locked in a vicious fight with another dog, resulting in multiple bites and wounds. In what is by far the most emotionally difficult scene to watch, Neville tries to make Sam comfortable while seeing if a vaccinated test can stave of the infection. While Sam lays in Neville’s arms dying and slowly becoming infected, tears stream down Neville’s face. Neville’s only choice to kill Sam the moment Sam has become fully infected.
This scene is amazingly well done. Smith’s performance of saving his own life, while trying to end Sam’s is heart breaking. As he end’s Sam’s life, you can see Neville’s last hopes leave his eyes in the tears streaming down his face.
(END OF SPOILERS)
From this point on, the movie shifts into a more action oriented theme, but does not totally abandon its prior success. I Am Legend can easily be seen as two films, the first a movie of isolation and how a lone human struggles to maintain his sanity, the second a more typical Hollywood action-thriller.
We are introduced to two new characters in the second half of the film, both of which are too little too late. Their symbolism is important, but their use in the movie could have been improved. The performances aren’t on the same level as Smith’s or even Sam’s and it’s difficult to feel any emotional attachment to them. Their symbolic presence of hope to Neville is important, as a glimpse of normality and his path to a cure and ultimately is his root to spiritual salvation.
Like the new characters the climax doesn’t stir the same tense feeling initially felt in the first half. As a whole, the movie is very enjoyable, but loses focus in the end. It would be easier to grade the film by its two thematic segments, the first half getting 5 stars, the second half getting 3 stars. Despite its thematic collapse at the end, I Am Legend offers far more enjoyable moments to outweigh its faults.